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The Madness of Helena Brown

New machinations from Houston's most fascinating city councilmember
by Published on

If Houston politics were a reality TV show, Councilmember Helena Brown would be the housemate that producers had selected specially as insurance against a boring season.

While Dateline Houston was having its mind blown in the Nevada desert, Brown was making headlines again, this time for trying to bill the city for stuff that the city obviously shouldn’t be paying for. Among this stuff was a personal lawyer Brown hired to attend meetings between herself, the mayor, and—wait for it—the city attorney. As in, the attorney employed, and already paid for, to advise councilmembers. A strong case could previously have been made for Brown regarding her employer as antagonist, but this really nails it. (The city will pay for outside counsel when there’s a conflict of interest, but none seemed apparent, and Brown refused, as she always does, to explain her actions.)

It also nails Brown’s fascinating hypocrisy, which might be explained by obliviousness. This first-term erstwhile hotel receptionist has made a name for herself by voting down fire trucks and care for the elderly, saying every blessed week that the city is broke and the country is broke, but she tried to bill the city for $2,108 in gas money spent not by her but by William Park, whom the Chronicle coyly IDs as a “volunteer adviser to the councilwoman on fiscal issues.”

Props to the Chronicle’s Chris Moran, who writes lines like that with a narrow eye but a straight face.

In July, the Houston Press made Brown/Park its cover story, speculating that Park, a disgraced financier, influences Brown’s votes and soapbox speeches if not outright writes them. Whatever the arrangement, Brown, in trying and failing to cover the man’s gas bill, starts to look a little victim-y. She/they have rendered her wholly ineffective, since she usually votes alone and doesn’t seem to have made any friends on the Council.

Then one reads that, while denying her employees benefits ostensibly to save the city money, Brown tried to get reimbursed for buying 13,000 magnets.

The expense, of more than $3,000, remains under review.

Emily DePrang joined The Texas Observer in 2011 as a staff writer covering criminal justice and public health. Before that, she was nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. Before that, she was a waitress. She's also appeared in The Atlantic, Salon.com, and VICE. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has won some things, including the Public Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists (2012), the National Health Journalism Fellowship from USC Annenberg (2013), and a nomination for a National Magazine Award in Reporting (2014). She still sometimes thinks about waitressing.